Most of the time, the Bird Strike North America Conference is just another obscure meeting only known to those within the field. But when your field draws headlines after birds send an Airbus A320 into the Hudson River, suddenly your conference gets a whole lot of attention.
Such is the case at the 2009 meeting of the bird strike conference (.pdf) this week in Victoria, British Columbia, where conference chairman Gary Searing is among those gathered to discuss “defining and reducing the frequency and consequences of bird strikes.” It is a vitally important field because FAA data show bird strikes are bad and getting worse.
“We try to do our job so nobody notices what we do,” Searing told Wired.com. “That’s when we’ve done a good job.”
Although aircraft have long had to contend with hitting birds, the issue received national attention after U.S. Airways flight 1549 lost both engines and landed in the Hudson because it ingested some Canada geese. Searing has worked on the bird strike problem for more than 20 years and is the president of Airport Wildlife Management International. Speaking to Wired.com from the conference, he said many large airports use everything from flares and falconry to clearing habitat to keep birds away from runways.
“Clearly the mood here is we’re doing a pretty good job of dealing with birds on the airports,” he said. “The problem is those strikes that occur away from the airport.”
That’s where old technology might find a new use.
The big challenge Searing and his colleagues face is the same one that turned Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger into a glider pilot — birds encountered once the plane is beyond the airport. Airlines and pilots currently receive little more than vague warnings about birds in a general area. Searing and others believe information about birds must be as specific and easily obtained as information about icing, wind shear and other weather hazards. Having that data won’t eliminate risk, but it would add to pilots’ situational awareness and increase safety.
Radar is one option attracting more attention. Radar typically is used to keep track of larger objects, such as airplanes. But Tim Nohara says his company can take off-the-shelf systems and tweak the software to filter out some of the big stuff while zeroing in on birds.
Nohara is the president of Accipiter Radar Technologies, a company that specializes in “uncooperative small targets.” Initially those small targets were small vessels crossing remote border regions. But back in 2003 the company turned its attention to birds. Nohara says his company can take relatively simple radar systems such as those used on fishing boats and — with minor hardware mods and some sophisticated algorithms — carefully choose which targets to track and which to filter out.
The FAA is evaluating Accipiter’s radar systems at airports including John F. Kennedy and O’Hare. Right now it is just adding to the information about birds around the airports, but Nohara imagines a day when the technology could provide pilots with the same real-time positional data about birds they now receive about other aircraft. Nohara told Wired.com the technology is evolving quickly.
“I see a specialized air traffic control display that requires very low interaction, an automated advisory that goes right to the pilot or anybody tuned in,” he said. Like Searing, Nohara believes bird strike information must be focused and similar to weather advisories pilots currently receive.
“The general information is not of much use,” he said.
Radar does have its limitations. While the software can filter out buildings, trees and other large objects, it can’t distinguish between a harmless flight of swallows and a potentially dangerous gaggle of geese. This means the messages to pilots aren’t quite as specific as everybody would like right now. The good news is with the increased interest from the general public, those participating in the bird strike conference say more research is being put into the technologies aimed at keeping airplanes and birds apart.